Of the six finalists for this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel, N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate was my least anticipated. I’m in the dramatic minority here, as the first novel in this series, The Fifth Season, received near unanimous praise and walked away with the Hugo in a decisive win. I was less sanguine about that initial novel’s pessimism and relentless misery, which mostly served to distance me from the narrative rather than suck me in. There were some interesting revelations and solid worldbuilding in that initial volume, but on the whole, it didn’t feel like much progress had been made in the overall arc. Such things happen in the first volume of a series, I guess, but that didn’t exactly inspire confidence that the second book in the trilogy would fare better. Spoilers for both The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate forthcoming…
When a novel’s overarching narrative is that the world is ending, but the world is so monstrous that such an apocalypse is seen as almost welcome from its inhabitants (at least, the ones we get close to), it’s hard not to feel detached. As I noted in my review of The Fifth Season:
If Fantasy too often errs on the side of optimism, this book perhaps errs too far on the side of pessimism. It’s one thing to confront complex problems, but it’s another to propose a solution that is the end of the world. That’s not a solution that provides hope or inspiration, merely despair. Or maybe I’m just being too literal. Jemisin is certainly a talented author with a good command of language, but this novel never really managed to get over the hump for me.
The Obelisk Gate begins with a rehashing of man murdering his toddler, because such anguish was only hinted at in the previous book and obviously needed to be expanded upon with further detail here (“It doesn’t take a lot of effort to beat a toddler to death, but he hyperventilated while he did it.”) After this cheery interlude, the story picks up where The Fifth Season leaves off. Essun (aka Syenite, aka Damaya) has not yet caught up with her toddler-murdering husband Jija or their kidnapped daughter, Nassun, but is instead living in an unusual underground comm called Castrima, where she has met up with her old mentor Alabaster. She learns that he has actually set off the current world-destroying event by attempting to leverage the obelisks that float in the skies to end the cycle of Seasons and thus shatter the social structures that oppress so many, but he apparently failed and his powers are on the wane. The cryptic and tantalizing cliffhanger of The Fifth Season was a simple question: “Tell me, have you ever heard of something called a moon?” It seems that this world once had a moon, but a previous civilization did something to drive it off, and we get some background here. Now it’s returning, and Alabaster attempts to share his knowledge with Essun so that she can finish the job. But since the world is currently ending, they also have to deal with enemies at the gates, and all that fun stuff. Elsewhere, Essun’s daughter Nassun has wound up being trained as an orogene herself, and is starting to come into her own.
The horror of the opening chapter’s infanticide aside, I actually found this to be a somewhat less grim exercise than the opening novel. Nassun’s thread, in particular, is a welcome addition. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of misery to go around and Nassun is clearly coming under the influence of some unsavory folk, but maybe I’m just inured to it this time around, or maybe I just braced properly for the sucker punches. Still, it’s good to get a differing perspective on the world, even as Essun’s narrative seems to stall out. Such is the way of middle installments of a trilogy, but I’m still struck by a remarkable lack of progress in the overarching narrative. Two books in, and little has actually happened. Jemisin seems more concerned with her characters than the plot, and the big twists of these novels bear that out. In the first novel, we find that the three viewpoint characters were actually the same person. In this novel, we finally figure out who is telling Essun’s story in second person narration… it’s Hoa, the stone eater. This is not quite as interesting as the first book’s revelation (and I’m not entirely sure how Hoa knows enough details to narrate that way), but at least we’re getting somewhere. The various factions of the world (guardians, stone eaters, etc…) are fleshed out a bit more (though still plenty of open questions), as is the magic system, but it all still feels like characterization, worldbuilding, and setup rather than a satisfying story in itself. Not to overuse this bit from Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, but I can’t help but think that too much of this book is “perpetrating hooptedoodle.” The clouds have been gathering for two novels, but I suspect the finale will be a light rain shower, not the exciting thunderstorm that would normally be expected.
I think I can see the outlines of the endgame. I suspect Essun will be reunited with her daughter… in battle! As Essun tries to save the world by bringing a renegade moon into orbit (thus perhaps permanently quelling the earthquakes that shatter the world so), it looks like Nassun is being manipulated to bring the Moon crashing down on the world, ending everything once and for all. Plus, her feelings towards her mother don’t exactly indicate any desire for reconciliation in the first place. Or something like that. Of course, I could be completely wrong. Jemisin seems to revel in subverting established tropes of storytelling, which sometimes results in an interesting spin on a familiar story (the “revenge” throughline of this series certainly hasn’t gone as expected, for instance), but that sort of thing is difficult to pull off. Sometimes tropes are tropes for a reason. I’m guessing the “battle” I mentioned above won’t be a big action setpiece, but rather a small, intimate battle of wills. Is that enough? On a personal level, I simply haven’t been able to get over the hump, even if it feels like the near unanimous sentiment of fandom is one of ecstatic enthusiasm.
Ultimately, if it weren’t for the Hugo Awards, I wouldn’t have read this, and I have no real interest in finding out if my above speculations will come to pass. Hugo voters doing what they do, though, means that the final book will probably get nominated and thus I’ll feel obligated to give it a shot. Jemisin is a talented writer, but not one that has really struck a chord with me. I’ve now read all of the novels nominated for this year’s Best Novel Hugo. Alas, this one will be bringing up the rear, along with Too Like the Lightning. A peg above those two is All the Birds in the Sky. I keep flipping Death’s End and A Closed and Common Orbit, but either would make a fine #2 or #3 ranking. At the top of the list remains Ninefox Gambit. A pretty good list this year, if a bit heavy on the hooptedoodle.